Without a doubt the holiday season is the busiest time of the year for air travel in the U.S. The trade group Airlines for America predicts 51 million passengers will fly globally on U.S. airlines between Dec. 15, 2017 through Jan. 4, 2018, which is a 3.5 percent increase in the number of passengers who flew during the same time last year.
The growing number of air travelers may be good for industry profits, but not always good for passenger safety, according to the latest runway incursion report by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Growing demand can translate into crowding and confusion on airport tarmacs.
The report provides data about the number of occurrences “involving the incorrect presence of an aircraft, vehicle or person on the protected area of a surface designated for the landing and take off of aircraft,” the FAA explains. The total number of incursions increased, for the fourth consecutive year, climbing from 1,548 in fiscal year 2016 to 1,740 in fiscal year 2017. The consistent increase in incidents comes despite federal efforts to reduce incursions, as discussed in the Jere Beasley Report.
There are four levels of incursion severity and the FAA’s latest report on the most severe incidents classified as A and B incursions shows a decrease. Yet, an increasing number of high profile incidents continue raising questions about passenger safety while their aircraft is on the ground.
In February, Star Wars and Indiana Jones star Harrison Ford landed his Aviat Husky plane on a taxiway that was parallel to the runway he was cleared to land on, USA Today reported. The star and aviation enthusiast alleged that he was distracted by turbulence from another aircraft when he erroneously flew his plane over a Boeing 737 with 116 people on board at the John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California.
A similar incident occurred with a commercial jet in July at the San Francisco (SFO) airport. An Air Canada plane flew hazardously low – 59 feet off the ground – over four other aircraft awaiting takeoff with an estimated 1,000 passengers on board, according to Mercury News. The plane was attempting to land on a taxiway that was parallel to the runway where it was supposed to land. It even dropped off the air traffic controller’s ground surveillance system during the last 12 seconds of its approach. The plane finally aborted the landing when “a flight crew member from a jet on the taxiway” alerted the Air Canada crew and air traffic control about the imminent danger, Mercury News reported.
One pilot explained that if the Air Canada crew had waited only five seconds longer to abort, the plane would have hit a United Airlines 787 jet that was headed to Sydney, Australia, and filled with fuel and passengers. This incident could have caused one of the most devastating aviation disasters in the U.S., experts say.
Following Air Canada’s close call at SFO, the FAA began implementing a safety recommendation it rejected six years earlier, Bloomberg Technology explained. In 2011, The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommended upgrading the software used by ground radar systems after investigating a similar incident that occurred in 2009.
A Delta Air Lines plane landed on a taxiway at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and the investigators determined that major airports could update existing radar systems to aid fatigued pilots landing planes at night. The systems were originally designed to prevent incursions and collisions specifically on runways as opposed to taxiways. However, the upgraded systems will alert controllers if a plane is heading down a taxiway rather than a runway.
When the NTSB first issued the recommendation, the FAA refused to even study its feasibility. The agency believed the upgrade could potentially diminish the software’s performance, something that would not be offset by new capabilities, according to the FAA. Revisiting a seemingly simple solution to protect passengers is a step in the right direction for the FAA, especially since other efforts have not proven effective in reducing runway incursions.
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Mike Andrews, a lawyer in our firm’s Personal Injury & Products Liability Section, handles aviation litigation. For more information about this topic, you can contact him at 800-898-2034 or Mike.Andrews@beasleyallen.com.
Airlines for America
Federal Aviation Administration